Academia’s accountability problem

By Alissa Brown


Let’s stop pretending that trainees have effective options for dealing with abusive mentors. I hear about this pretending at my institution by well-meaning advocates for trainees. They say things like, “We have an ombuds office for this reason! What, you didn’t know about that? They have so many resources for you!” And then faculty and staff leadership can sit back and feel better about academic abuse because trainees have support networks at universities.

But the scary thing is, we don’t.

I need to clarify two things: 1) the type of abuse I’m talking about; and 2) what I mean by “resources.”

1) Type of abuse. There is a spectrum of academic abuse, spanning the mild (inappropriate tone in email correspondence) to the egregious (assault). And with this spectrum comes a wide variety of approaches for addressing the abuse. In mild cases, the boldest trainees can confront their mentors and hopefully be received with introspection and apology (in all honesty, I’ve never heard of this happening – introspection and apology, that is). In severe cases, the victim needs law enforcement intervention.

For this post, I mostly address common forms of abuse. Readers may not even think of these common behaviors as “abuse.” These are behaviors that, while perhaps not egregious, are nonetheless damaging to trainee mental health (and therefore physical health) and career prospects. An isolated and mild abusive behavior may not pose a threat to a trainee; but the prevalence of these abusive behaviors means that trainees are confronted with them chronically – creating a stifling environment of powerlessness, and leading to death* by a thousand cuts.

2) What I mean by “resources.” When I think of resources for trainees, I think of options that offer hope that the trainee can soon go back to performing their research; can feel safe while doing so; and is not afraid of retaliation.

Going back to the ombuds office. They are a confidential resource, which is great for trainees who don’t want to report their mentors. The ombuds can’t take action on behalf of the trainee, but can tell the trainee what their options are.

If you are a member of a Title IX-protected group, the ombuds might refer you to the Equal Opportunity Office, which can investigate Title IX policy violations. But the abuse has to meet very specific requirements and must be meticulously documented by the victim. (I know a grad student in another department whose case was turned down by Title IX, even though the case involved harassment, stalking, and retaliation by a faculty member.) Even if they decide to build a case for you, the outcome will almost certainly be disappointing.

The ombuds might suggest meeting with the Dean of the Graduate School. The Dean can’t actually do much, even if you’re lucky enough to have a Dean sympathetic to your situation. (A grad student I know had an abusive mentor and met with this Dean, only to be told that her situation “wasn’t really a Graduate School matter.”)

Let’s say your ombuds tells you to talk with the Office of Student Affairs. Similar to the Dean of the Graduate School, this person likely doesn’t have the power to do anything about your situation. (Two grad students I know, representing different departments, visited the Office of Student Affairs to discuss abusive mentors across multiple departments. The Vice-Chancellor was shocked, unprepared for the conversation, and asked the grad students to conduct an investigation – by themselves – to determine “the breadth and width of the situation” and report back to him. I don’t think I need to explain to readers how absurd this request is.)

Your ombuds might suggest speaking to your Departmental Chair or your departmental Director of Graduate Studies. It’s important to consider that because these roles involve faculty in the same department as the problematic mentor, they are subject to similar politics and power dynamics within the academic hierarchy as the trainee. What if the Chair or the DGS are more junior than the problematic mentor, and thus feel like they can’t do anything about it without fear of retaliation?

Imagine the Chair or DGS feels empowered to do something. The most they could do on their own would be to send a formal message to the abusive mentor asking them to change their behavior. But there isn’t anything the Chair or DGS could do if the problematic faculty member does not behave after this notification.

Even if the Chair’s or DGS’s actions are effective at ceasing the mentor’s abuse, there’s nothing that stops the mentor from retaliating against the trainee. This can ruin the trainee’s career prospects, particularly with prestigious faculty boasting a large professional network. If the trainee decides to switch labs or programs, this can set them back years on their career path. Chances are, the trainee will opt to leave academia entirely. I’ve heard this story so many times that it’s becoming boring to hear about.

Worst case, your Chair will not appreciate you coming forward with your story. (I know of a grad student in another department whose Chair, with the utmost sympathy and kindness, told the student that although her situation was bad, the student needed to stop talking about the abuse or she could be sued for libel.)

Why is it so hard to hold faculty accountable for their behavior? I think, in part, it’s because institutions place higher value on faculty who bring in money to the university than on trainee health and career prospects. There are plenty of faculty and staff who care deeply about trainee health, who participate in mentorship training, or who take on leadership roles in their departments that relate to academic abuse in some way. These staff and faculty (in my lucky experience) are common. The problem is that without policies and infrastructure in place to help trainees with problematic mentors, trainees will continue to get the short end of the stick, and their (unpunished) mentors will continue to mentor the same way they always have (which is probably the way their mentors mentored them). And so continues the cycle of abuse.

*In this situation, the metaphorical “death” may be suffering a mental health crisis, leaving the graduate program without a degree, or later on, leaving academia for another work sector that has a stronger accountability structure for upper management.

Author biography: Alissa Brown (@AlissaJ_Brown) is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she studies forest ecology and tree coexistence. She is passionate about improving academic culture, leading her to join forces with other grad students and faculty in the Biology Department to make positive changes toward reducing harassment in research labs. Visit to find resources resulting from these efforts.

Image credit: Image created by the author, Alissa Brown, using Creative Commons CC0 images from Pixabay, and modified using the free vector graphics software, Inkscape.